College is finally the time when people can voice their opinions and set out to accomplish whatever they put their minds to. This certainly rings true in writer-director Whit Stillman’s new comedy, ‘Damsels in Distress,’ in which females are finally taking control of college life, and are portrayed to be smarter than their male counterparts. The female characters in the film aren’t afraid to voice their thoughts and opinions, no matter how different they are than their friends’ and classmates’ ideas.
‘Damsels in Distress’ follows a trio of beautiful girls-dynamic leader Violet (played by Greta Gerwig), principled Rose (portrayed by Megalyn Echikunwoke) and sexy Heather (played by Carrie Maclemore)-who try to revitalize life at their male-dominated East Coast college, Seven Oaks. At the beginning of the year, they decide to welcome transfer student Lily (portrayed by Analeigh Tipton) into their group, which tries to help severely depressed students through a program of good hygiene and musical dance numbers. The girls become romantically involved with a series of men they view to be inferior, including mischievous Charlie (played by Adam Brody), romantic Xavier (portrayed by Hugo Becker) and frat members Frank (played by Ryan Metcalf) and Thor (portrayed by Billy Magnussen), who all threaten the girls’ friendship and sanity.
Stillman and Gerwig generously took the time to sit down with us during a roundtable interview at The Regency Hotel in New York City to discuss what it was like filming ‘Damsels in Distress.’ Among other things, they also spoke about why the actress was a good fit for the role of Violet, and what they truly think about movie critics.
Written by: Karen Benardello
Question (Q): Can you two discuss how you met?
Whit Stillman (WS): We met in the casting process. There was a really great team of casting people, and they showed me this picture of this beautiful blonde actress. They said she’s very good, and I said, she’ll play the drop-dead gorgeous Lily. Then I meet her, and…
Greta Gerwing (GG): It’s me. (laughs) I wanted to play Violet, and when Whit talked to me, he maybe realized I was more of a Violet than he thought. I auditioned for him and the casting directors. I asked to audition, and I tap danced and sang.
WS: She had the part, we just wanted to see her tap dance. (laughs)
Q: Why did you think you were more like Violet?
GG: Oh, I was in love with her. She’s one of the most wonderful female characters I’ve ever read. I just think she’s inspiring as a person. She’s strange and contradictory, but also utterly herself. I had such fun playing her, the way she was and her humanity.
Q: With the portrayal of women and men in this movie, did you think about that a lot while writing?
WS: Well, she’s trying to be anthropological, and see people in their native habitat.
Q: It’s refreshing to see women being weird, and not shown in a stereotypical way.
GG: It’s funny. Violet’s trying so hard to be some kind of feminine ideal, but becomes utterly strange. It’s like aliens observing earth, and then trying to imitate humans.
WS: Yeah, I was trying to make an aliens comedy. (laughs) I said, we’ll make aliens on a university campus, but we won’t tell anyone.
Q: Why set the film in college?
WS: Well, there’s a seed of veracity to it. I’ve run into the story of groups of young women who try to transform male-dominated campuses. People were very amused by the women involved in the story, with their perfume and dressing up. But then it seemed like it could be a whole comic environment, and that’s how the story turned out.
It’s beyond what I anticipated. I like the comedy going in that broader, fantastical direction. I think it’s also that I don’t get to direct broad comedies, but I really love them. I love Will Ferrell, like ‘Old School,’ and ‘Animal House.’ I think we got a little bit of that in our film.
Q: How did you work out Violet’s delivery of her lines? They’re pretty deadpan, and she’s saying all these crazy theories. It sounds so normal, like you’re buying into what she’s saying.
GG: Oh good, I’m glad you thought so. (laughs) But I think a lot of it for me was internalizing her ideas, and really getting behind what she was saying, logically and emotionally. Not just saying the lines to be funny, but because she means them.
Whit really pushed up in the direction of whenever we would give more comic performances, the girls, he would say no, we’re not going to play this as a comedy. It’s funny, but we’re not playing it like it’s a comedy, for the girls. I think the boys had more comedic performances that were played like that. But the girls, we really tried to make it sincere with all of our performances.
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